Learn to Embrace Paradoxical Leadership

written by Katja Kolmetz. founder of Human Deluxe, @katja.kolmetz

Recently, I talked to an old friend from university who has meanwhile pivoted into horse-assisted coaching. I honestly had no idea what that meant.

She explained that she coaches (emerging) leaders with the help of horses, as there is a lot that humans can learn from them. Turns out that every herd of wild horses is led by two, a lead stallion and a lead mare. Both of them lead the herd with complementary behaviors.

Within every herd of wild horses, there is typically a lead stallion and a lead mare. It is their role to keep the herd safe and moving. With the lead mare at the front of the herd, and the stallion pushing from behind, they lead the community to food and water.

While there are exceptions, human leaders typically carry the responsibility of leading a team by themselves. And there are clear expectations towards them: Good leaders, so the narrative goes, are consistent in their decision making, stick to their commitments, and remain on-message.

Life Isn’t Black and White Though

We all know that leaders face contradictory challenges all the time. They constantly deal with opposing goals, tensions, and paradoxes - and it’s never black and white.

Are we managing for today or for tomorrow? Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them? Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders?

Conflicting goals often polarize an organization, and it’s a leader’s role to adopt apply the right strategies and behaviors to mediate. Think of control and autonomy, self-centeredness and other-centeredness, managing distance and closeness, uniformity and individualization, or enforcement and flexibility. These are all important qualities in a leader, but quite often consistency is chosen over complementary, dynamic behaviors.

Consistent Inconsistency

Paradoxical leadership begins with a reexamination of some implicit assumptions about leadership. Is the traditional leadership image and its well-intentioned consistency really the most expedient solution?

The movement of paradoxical leadership embraces the opposite: Holistic thinking, integrative complexity, and a new leadership image. Research appears to prove them right, as studies have shown that paradoxical behavior in managing people is associated with increased proficiency, adaptivity, and proactivity among subordinates (The Academy of Management Journal 58(2):538-566). The modern leader.

Challenging existing stereotypes about leadership is an opportunity for individuals to explore their own leadership principles and adopt complementary behaviors to fill that role with life. Why not start with your very own, personal values and design a leadership image around that?

written by Katja Kolmetz. founder of Human Deluxe, @katja.kolmetz